The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

Baton Rouge

From the lofty vantage point of the I-10 bridge over the Mississippi River, Baton Rouge (pop. 229,553) appears to be a largely industrial city, its skyline dominated by smokestacks, a World War II destroyer, a mock-Mississippi Riverboat casino, and the nation’s tallest state capitol—essentially a 34-story monument to the populist demagoguery of Huey “Kingfish” Long. Just south of the towering capitol, a life-sized animatronic figure of Long, the state’s legendary Depression-era governor, dominates the Old State Capitol (Tues.-Sat. 9am-4pm, free), that clearly visible white gothic-style castle—the only thing missing is a moat. Inside the restored 1847 edifice are engaging computer-aided history exhibits, including one about Huey Long’s unresolved 1935 assassination: Was the patronage-dealing, road-building, vote-buying potentate the target of premeditated murder, or was then-U.S. Senator Long the victim of his five trigger-happy bodyguards’ “friendly fire,” aimed at a man who merely punched the boss? Review the evidence and draw your own conclusions.

Another lesson in Louisiana history can be yours at the wonderful Rural Life Museum (4560 Essen Ln., 225/765-2437, daily 8am-5pm, $9), managed by Louisiana State University and located east of downtown off I-10 exit 160. This expansive collection of shotgun houses, barns, farming equipment, riverboats, donkey carts, hand tools, and appliances—basically, anything that might have been seen in the state 100 years ago—was assembled on a former plantation by artist Steele Burden. The rest of the plantation is now a picturesque garden that covers 25 acres.

Baton Rouge hosts the Louisiana Hot Air Balloon Championship in late September. Besides being a beautiful sight, the hundreds of colorful balloons take part in a target competition, trying to drop beanbags onto a bull’s-eye from 1,000 feet in the air.

The popularity of college football shouldn’t be underestimated in Baton Rouge: Motel No Vacancy signs light up all over town whenever the LSU Tigers (tickets 800/960-8587) play. Basketball, baseball, and other sports are big, too.


Baton Rouge Practicalities

If you’re looking for a place to eat and absorb a little Baton Rouge ambience, the Pastime (252 South Blvd., 225/343-5490), a few blocks from the Old State Capitol, right under the I-10 interchange, is one of those windowless, smoky sports bars ideally suited for discussing political chicanery over po’boys, fried fish, and beer. Best pizzas in town, too—try the one topped with crawfish tails for some local flavor. Another excellent place to eat a fine meal and get filled in on local life ways is world-famous Jay’s Bar-B-Q (5734 S. Sherwood Forest Blvd., 225/293-1232, closed Sun.), serving real good ribs, pulled-pork sandwiches, hickory burgers, po’boys, and—if you’re lucky and ask nicely—smoked alligator.

Another bunch of good eating and drinking prospects are clustered around the Highland Avenue entrance to Louisiana State University, a couple of miles south of I-10. Louie’s Cafe (209 W. State St., 225/346-8221), across from the Super Fresh shopping plaza, is open 24 hours, so there’s no excuse to miss it. Facing the LSU gates is The Chimes (3357 Highland Rd., 225/383-1754), a restaurant and oyster bar with 100 beers from 24 countries and frequent live music. Several other bars in the vicinity offer music with some regularity, but be warned that undergraduate projectile vomiting is a serious hazard.

While there are a number of hotels in downtown Baton Rouge and along the highways south and east of town, most of the inexpensive accommodations cluster around exit 151 on I-10, two miles west of the Mississippi in Port Allen. For a memorably characterful overnight, try The Stockade B&B (8860 Highland Rd., 225/769-7358, $135 and up), a home-style inn on spacious grounds near LSU.


Baton Rouge

The Stockade B&B (8860 Highland Rd.)

The Chimes (3357 Highland Rd.)

Louie’s Cafe (209 W. State St.)

Jay’s Bar-B-Q (5734 S. Sherwood Forest Blvd.)

Pastime (252 South Blvd.)

Rural Life Museum (4560 Essen Ln.)

Old State Capitol (100 North Blvd.)